The Shops - The Opera Group - Royal Opera House, 21 September 2007
An opera about shopping? Not quite. The first disappointment of the evening was discovering that the central character of Edward Rushton's new opera was not a shopper but a stamp collector - a gatherer not a hunter, and a man to boot. Hardly the secksy consumerist fantasy I had imagined.
Shooting through 27 hyperspeed scenes in just 70 minutes, the opera tells the story of collector Christoph (Darren Abrahams), who cunningly thieves stamps from museums while his girlfriend Anna (the stylishly vintage-garbed Anna Dennis) creates a series of implausible distractions. In between are scenes of Anna's own breathlessly acquisitive shopping expeditions, of Christoph's interrogation by a fellow-philatelist police inspector, his psychiatric evaluation, and his collection's nemesis at the hands of his interfering mother (the hilarious Phyllis Canaan).
There were some genuinely funny scenes in the jumble of anti-consumerist finger wagging, but no sense that any of them were individually essential, and no discernible shape overall.
The collage approach extended to the music. Rushton made imaginative use of the self-imposed limits of his resources (half the little orchestra were clarinets), but it was all too episodic to achieve any dramatic peaks.
At least it looked good - a set made of carrier bags of all sizes from the hand sized to shed sized lent a visual coherence, and the direction was snappy and fast paced.
And every one of the perfectly-cast singers gave the sort of flawless and committed performance that elevated them above any shortcomings in the raw materials.
The one unqualified success of the production was the programme (photo below). Instead of the usual lame booklet, £3 bought a glossy Shops carrier bag filled with information sheets, cards and leaflets and even a freebie CD - a surprisingly good NMC sampler packed with snippets of Judith Weir, Simon Bainbridge, Julian Anderson and other contemporary stuff. Does anyone ever turn down a free CD? Here is a marketing idea other productions should consider.